GLOVE STORY

Sooty 3Some characters that emanated from the pages of children’s literature during the medium’s century-long reign as the prime launch-pad for the imagination appear to be in possession of a remarkable durability that enables them to charm successive generations of young readers. The anthropomorphic animals from ‘The Wind in the Willows’, the cast of surreal eccentrics from ‘Alice in Wonderland’, Winnie the Pooh and his engaging sidekicks, Peter Pan and his nocturnal Neverland – all continue to sprinkle the same stardust onto the children of today as they sprinkled onto their parents, grandparents and so on. Most of these success stories have, of course, had their lives extended by being reimagined in other mediums that arrived later – primarily cinema and television; and the latter not only adapted these established franchises for a fresh audience, but eventually created franchises of its own. Some had impressive longevity, whereas others remain known only to those who watched with mother at the time. There are, however, a select few who have continued to wave their magic wands throughout the decades – and once even extended their omnipotence to the breakfast table.

Not only are the plastic mouldings posing as free gifts that once tumbled out of breakfast cereal boxes now frowned upon as planet polluters and health-and-safety hazards, but the cereals themselves are today viewed with puritanical suspicion, guilty of infecting impressionable infants with a nascent sugar addiction; banished from prime-time kids’ advertising slots and – in some cases (such as the late, lamented Ricicles) – expunged from supermarket shelves altogether, these one-time starts to the day have had a hard time of it over the past po-faced decade. How removed from an era when each brand was so key to the childhood experience that their boxes featured familiar faces on the front, whether Florence and Dougal from ‘The Magic Roundabout’, Mr Spock from ‘Star Trek’ or Jon Pertwee’s incarnation of Doctor Who. And, lest we forget, Mr Kellogg also signed-up a famed double act, one so huge that they were both granted a turn as individual cover stars of their own cereals – Sooty on ‘Puffa Puffa Rice’ and Sweep on ‘Coco Krispies’. Yes, that’s how big these two characters were: they were allocated separate cereals.

Sooty this year celebrates his 75th anniversary – not bad for a cheap glove puppet picked up in a Blackpool toy shop by Bradford-born music hall magician and puppeteer Harry Corbett in 1948; trading on a deep-rooted British tradition stretching back to Punch and Judy, Corbett developed an act with the bear he initially christened Teddy and won a slot on an early BBC TV variety show. So popular did the act with Teddy prove to be, Corbett was offered his own programme shortly thereafter, but in order to stand out on monochrome screens, Corbett blackened the bear’s ears and nose, something that led to a change of name to Sooty. The silent glove puppet, who would ‘whisper’ words in the ear of his human assistant between magic tricks and the occasional squirt of a water pistol, soon acquired a sidekick, a dog called Sweep. Sweep was the clown to Sooty’s straight man, immediately recognisable by his high-pitched squeak, and the two became inseparably linked as a double act.

Sooty and Sweep’s popularity in the 1950s and 60s was so great that even an up-and-coming thespian who shared the same name as Sooty’s ‘dad’ had to insert a ‘H’ in the middle of his name to avoid confusion; this popularity was also mirrored in pioneering merchandise such as Sooty’s miniature xylophone-cum-glockenspiel, as well as a yearly Sooty annual published for the best part of 40 years from 1957 onwards, and regular comic strips featuring in weeklies targeting a pre-school readership. The TV shows largely specialised in slapstick sketches in the music hall tradition and gradually introduced other characters to the Sooty family such as female panda Soo (originally voiced by Corbett’s wife Marjorie in a distinctively husky Fenella Fielding-like fashion) and bulldog geezer, Butch. Sooty was part of the childhood wallpaper to anyone raised in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, and the seamless switch from the BBC to ITV that took place in the late 60s had no detrimental impact on the puppet’s popularity whatsoever. So engrained were Sooty and Sweep in British pop culture by the 70s that the pair were central to the puppet government storyline in a memorable episode of ‘The Goodies’, whereby Sooty as Prime Minister and Sweep as Home Secretary were interviewed by Michael Barratt on ‘Nationwide’.

The first significant change to the act took place in the late 70s, when Harry Corbett was reluctantly forced to retire due to ill-health, but he kept Sooty in the family by handing over the reins to his son Matthew, already a familiar face to children due to his appearances on ‘Rainbow’. Matthew Corbett kept his hand in, as it were, for the next 20 years. Sooty even survived Corbett’s retirement in 1998, whereupon he was inherited by Richard Cadell, who maintained Sooty’s presence on TV screens until the outsourcing nature of British television in the 21st century eventually put paid to a show that had essentially run for the best part of half-a-century by 2004. Since then, Sooty and friends have resurfaced on other channels and the most simplistic of children’s characters has remained a fixture in the nation’s collective consciousness to this day. So, happy birthday, Sooty – and why not? From assisted suicide to Sooty in one fell post.

DAVID CROSBY (1941-2023)

CrosbyUpon hearing of the death of David Crosby – coming so hot on the heels of Jeff Beck passing away last week – I remarked to a friend that the 60s generation had become their own Dorian Gray portraits, ageing and decaying before our eyes whilst their over-achieving 20-something selves continued to be their definitive public image, frozen forever in the high summer of youth. Crosby’s CV was a case in point, making his most fruitful recordings as a member of two key American bands of the era, The Byrds and then Crosby, Stills and Nash (with or without Young); but he always had a reputation as being something of an awkward sod. Indeed, Doris Day’s record producer son Terry Melcher worked with The Byrds during Crosby’s tenure in the band as well as Charles Manson when the latter had a failed shot at being a pop star himself; Manson developed a dangerous grudge against Melcher comparable to Adolf’s beef with Jewish art critics, but Melcher nonetheless once stated that given the choice of re-entering the studio with either Crosby or Manson, he’d opt for the future murderous guru.

Crosby’s propensity for falling out with his nearest and dearest was apparently so incurable that even the CSNY peacemaker Graham Nash eventually had his patience tested for the last time and publicly declared the final severance of his long association with Crosby four or five years back. Nash had performed a role in CSNY that is a familiar one where most big bands containing several big egos are concerned; just as Eric Clapton separated Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in Cream or Maurice Gibb stood between Barry and Robin in The Bee Gees, Graham Nash had to routinely step in and pour oil on the troubled waters gushing from Stephen Stills and Neil Young; and he also had to deal with David Crosby, regularly provoking all three of his bandmates. Nash had managed to paper over these differences with considerable diplomatic aplomb, but he finally grew as weary of Crosby as the other two in the end. Yet, this is the same man who could emit such soothing, seductive vocal warmth in deliciously delicate songs like ‘Guinnevere’, ‘Long Time Gone’, and ‘Déjà Vu’.

Graham Nash often recalled how struck he’d been by the harmonious magic that arose when he combined his voice with those of Crosby and Stills for the first time, and perhaps all three recognised that putting their egos to one side for the sake of their art might be a profitable route to take. Even so, they only managed it for so long before personalities asserted themselves and clashes inevitably interrupted the creative flow. Perhaps, in the case of David Crosby, it really is best to separate art from artist and to simply immerse one’s self in the music.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/789776048

FESTIVE FEAR

IMG_20221212_0001Amazingly, it seems there are still people out there excitedly awaiting the unveiling of the festive schedules on the mainstream TV channels, as though the DVD box-set or streaming sites cease to exist on at midnight on 24 December, and for the duration of Christmas Day the only option for visual entertainment will be to watch the seasonal special of a BBC1 or ITV show nobody wants to watch the rest of the year. Even as far back as the late 80s, the one-time dominance of television to provide the masses with their yuletide viewing habits was being eroded by the gift-wrapped live comedy video, which would be shoved into the VCR instead of sitting through an over-familiar Bond movie or second-guessing which character would top themselves on the Xmas ‘Eastenders’. Television’s unchallenged power to monopolise leisure time on 25 December was broken long before the novelty of a Christmas Day terrestrial film premiere was rendered redundant by multiple means of seeing said movie months in advance of BBC1 getting hold of it. In a way, I suspect broadcasters are more aware of this than they let on, which is probably why they put so little effort into their Christmas output now than they used to; why waste time and money making festive telly people might want to watch when the people are planning their own personal schedules?

Like most unburdened by ‘family get-togethers’, I myself have the luxury of not having to take anyone else’s taste into account; I could watch ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ at 2.00 in the afternoon on Christmas Day if I wanted to. I don’t, but that’s not the point. Instead, I’ll no doubt dip into those neglected gems from the TV archive that the BBC will only trot out occasionally; indeed, what better way to feel seasonal without opting for the obvious than revisiting the fondly-recalled ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ series that annually aired on or around Xmas Eve from 1971 to 1978? An author whose low-key spine-chillers always appear best served by the small screen, M.R. James provided this series with the stories that comprised the first five entries, beginning with ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ in 1971; with its characteristically creepy Victorian setting, the chills are masterfully achieved on a shoestring budget, and though this psychological horror starring Robert Hardy as an Archdeacon tormented by voices and glimpses of imagined spectres in the shadows was intended as a one-off, it prompted a follow-up the following Christmas and swiftly established a tradition that spanned seven years.

There’d been successful televisual attempts to illustrate James’s talent for unsettling the reader prior to the start of this series; in 1968, Jonathan Miller directed an especially nightmarish adaptation of ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ in which Michael Horden’s twitchy academic suffers uncomfortably realistic nightmares during a spell on vacation in coastal Suffolk. It followed a familiar James path of placing pompous clergymen and dons in positions of peril, confronted by the consequences of their hubris when up against supernatural forces. ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ (as it was re-titled) made enough of an impact at the time to warrant further James adaptations, though by the time ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ appeared, television had grown out of its monochrome roots and director of all-but one of the BBC Ghost Stories, Lawrence Gordon Clark, made full use of colour location filming in East Anglia to visualise James’s written words. Perhaps the finest example of this came with his second outing, 1972’s ‘A Warning to the Curious’, in which Peter Vaughan stars as an amateur archaeologist in search of the lost crown of the Saxon kingdoms; against all odds, he discovers it, though he bargains without the presence of the crown’s guardian, an out-of-focus figure who pursues Vaughan’s character even when he is convinced enough of the trophy’s curse to return it to its burial place. It remains a uniquely eerie 50 minutes that hasn’t lost its ability to unnerve.

By the time of the third entry in the series, ‘Lost Hearts’, the annual Ghost Story was in danger of becoming as much of a Christmas tradition as the Xmas Day ‘Top of the Pops’ or ‘The Morecambe and Wise Show’ – albeit an alternative sedative to the usual festive cheer, reconnecting with a gleefully disturbing Victorian and Edwardian sensibility which had been lost in the wholesome Americanisation of the season that had become the norm by the late 20th century. 1974’s ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ returned to recognisable M.R. James territory by featuring Michael Bryant as a smug medieval scholar looking for the lost fortune of a disgraced cleric; when he finds it, the ramifications of his avarice reduce him to a gibbering victim of his own superior attitude towards the unknown. The following year’s ‘The Ash Tree’ delves even deeper into pagan superstition, recalling the witch-hunts of the 17th century and evoking primal arachnophobia with the mutant ‘spiders’ lurking in the tree of the title. However, by 1976 the M.R. James adaptations were deemed worn-out and the series then turned to a short story by Charles Dickens, ‘The Signalman’.

An early outing for the now-veteran TV adaptor of classic fiction Andrew Davies, ‘The Signalman’ features Denholm Elliott as the title character who recounts a bloody train crash on the line outside his signal-box to an unnamed traveller, an event that continues to haunt him in his solitary exile from society. The fact the original story was penned a year after Dickens himself survived similar carnage on a train travelling through Staplehurst in Kent is probably no coincidence, but it certainly taps into the nightmares that remained with the author until his premature death on the fifth anniversary of the incident in 1870. The television adaptation of ‘The Signalman’ bears the same psychological tropes that opened the series with ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ five years previously, and is – along with ‘A Warning to the Curious’ and ‘The Treasure of Abbott Thomas’ – perhaps the most effectively chilling of all the entries in the series.

In 1977, the series received something of a contemporary makeover by dispensing with adaptations of classic authors and commissioning a newly-written story set in the present day, ‘Stigma’; although this tale, starring the dependable Peter Bowles, has its moments by calling upon the same pagan myths that fuelled ‘The Ash Tree’, a key element of the series is lost by relocating events to the here and now, and the trend was carried over into the following year’s ‘The Ice House’, the final Ghost Story of the 70s run. Bar the odd repeat screening, the tradition was discontinued for several decades until BBC4 decided to revive the series during the period when the channel was producing daring drama the mainstream channels had largely abandoned. 2005’s adaptation of a previously-untouched M.R. James story, ‘A View from a Hill’, managed to retain the creepiness of the 1970s adaptations as well as adding a slicker look and feel that made the revival more than merely a nostalgic rehash. It worked well enough to lead to another James adaptation the year after (‘Number 13’) and the series has continued off and on ever since. A new instalment is scheduled for this year, hot on the heels of last year’s ‘The Mezzotint’, and all (bar one) have been derived from the works of the master, M.R. James.

Post-lockdown, the ongoing ‘things can only get worse’ mood of the nation has led to an annual ‘Oh, well – let’s just enjoy Christmas’ attitude that obscures the fact that, for many, this is a time of year when detachment from one’s fellow man is intensified by an overemphasis on convivial group gatherings that not everyone is party to. The likes of ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ serves as a much-needed antidote to such facile clichés and any addition to a series that now stretches back half-a-century is a welcome – not to say rare – contribution from mainstream broadcasters that acknowledges the needs of viewers for more than a Christmas ‘Strictly’ special to lure them away from online attractions. Long may it continue.

VICTOR LEWIS-SMITH (1957-2022)

A shadowy, near-mythical figure whose brilliantly offensive and near-the-knuckle manipulations of archive TV illuminated late-night Channel 4 back in the days when the station had balls, Victor Lewis-Smith was also renowned as a witty, sardonic journalist for publications as varied as the Daily Mirror, the Evening Standard and Private Eye. His death at the age of 65 will probably pass most people by, but his pioneering prank calls (which were unremittingly amusing, if deliciously beyond the pale) paved the way for the likes of Ali G; I particularly recall his call to Hughie Green in the late 90s, when he asked the one-time ‘Opportunity Knocks’ host if he’d ever f***ed Lena Zavaroni, which provoked laughter from Green rather than apoplexy. His call to Michael Winner was even better; if Lewis-Smith’s ‘TV Offal’ series is still available on YT, track it down; it also features the Gay Daleks. Say no more. The Winegum salutes you as a master satirist, sir.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

Vimeohttps://vimeo.com/746266089

HEART AND SOUL

3 - CopyThey may have been produced as ten-minute fillers to be screened between the support film and the main feature back when a night at the flicks wasn’t restricted to a solitary movie preceded by a hundred annoying ads, but the likes of Rank’s ‘Look at Life’ series now serve as a portal to a lost world arguably more fascinating than the films they propped-up. Running from 1959 to 1969, the ‘Look at Life’ shorts were shot on top notch 35mm film in crystal-clear Eastmancolor and show a Britain we’re more accustomed to seeing through a murky monochrome lens; as a result, they make the era come alive and are a unique archive of everyday life in the UK at the time. Like the rival series, ‘Pathé Pictorial’, there’s a hangover from the old cinema newsreels in that each short is accompanied by an RP voice-over and a jaunty, jolly soundtrack in the Light Programme fashion; but this merely adds to the period charm. By the late 60s, audiences becoming used to the grittier documentary techniques of television no doubt found them rather antiquated in style, though the visual record they left behind is increasingly invaluable.

From the dawn of talking pictures to the beginning of the 1970s (when the small screen had more or less completely taken over the format), documentary shorts of this ilk were a staple diet of cinema-going, though many of the ‘instructional’ variety eventually found an unlikely home on TV as ‘Trade Test Colour Films’ during the early years of colour television, when they were broadcast on BBC2 in the barren daytime hours. Unsurprisingly, as an established cinematic sub-genre, the documentary short wasn’t entirely in the hands of Rank and Pathé; several other studios specialised in producing them. British Transport Films was another company that provided endless behind-the-scenes profiles of industries and trades a well as focusing on the day-to-day experiences of Brits. One such British Transport short is 1962’s ‘All That Mighty Heart’, the title lifted from the celebrated poem by Wordsworth, ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’. This 1802 ode to London at the crack of dawn is recited at the film’s opening as we see the sun slowly rising over the city and follow the morning rituals of those whose professions necessitate an early start.

The London the film portrays is one that wouldn’t be out of place in a Ladybird book; indeed, the colourful clarity of the capital on a summer’s day uncannily echoes the vivid illustrations to be found in such pages. Bright red Routemaster buses are in abundance, as are the Times crossword-studying gents commuting on the Tube and proper Bobbies in the Sgt Dixon mould; even the fact that the first act of the geezer whose alarm clock signifies his day begins at 6:45am is to reach for a fag and cough his guts up is as much a distant sign of the times as his missus collecting the milk bottles from the doorstep. I myself recently re-cut many of the film’s scenes for a video of my own, accompanying its day-in-the-life narrative with theme tunes and snippets from mainstays of BBC Radio that had been the aural wallpaper for a generation by this time. The likes of ‘Housewives’ Choice’, ‘Music While You Work’, ‘Listen with Mother’, ‘Mrs Dale’s Diary’. ‘The Archers’ and ‘In Town Tonight’ all feature, along with snatches of the Third Programme and Network Three before the day draws to a close with the forecast for coastal waters. I guess nobody who appeared in the film could ever have imagined a day without such signposts, yet even though a small handful of those mainstays cling on into the present day, most are museum pieces in the 21st century, distancing now even further from then.

But we don’t simply visit the usual tourist haunts and famous streets in ‘All That Mighty Heart’; we also observe sporting venues like Lord’s and Wimbledon as well as London Zoo. We also see the suburbs as a pretty young housewife’s progress from her newly-built estate to a newly-built shopping precinct is tracked. She waves off handsome hubby to work from the doorstep as the two of them resemble one of those impossibly-innocent kissing couples on the sleeve of a Sinatra Capitol LP. Then she’s shown beginning the washing before dolling herself up to catch the bus and excitedly anticipating the consumerist ceremony sneeringly described by The Rolling Stones in ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ – ‘So she buys her instant cake/and she burns her frozen steak’ – doing so in the sparkling supermarket that constitutes a vital element of the Modernist master-plan of the suburban shopping precinct, one which looks like it was seamlessly transplanted directly from the corporation architect’s drawing-board.

The sight will be familiar to anyone who can recall ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’, the turn-of-the-70s pre-school children’s show that depicted life from a child’s perspective in one of the high-rises of that brave new world; everything is so spotlessly immaculate, from the materials that comprise the houses to the manicured lawns and verges surrounding them. There isn’t a sprinkling of litter or ugly graffiti to be seen. This optimistic portrayal of the ‘homes for heroes’ ideal that characterised the first quarter-century of redevelopment after WWII is never better illustrated than in a film from the dawn of the 60s, a time before corrupt councillors were bribed by bent builders to cut corners and erect their shoddy Brutalist tributes to Le Corbusier prior to their multiple faults being exposed to unfortunate tenants via rising damp and mould, or them simply collapsing of their own accord. Within less than two decades, most were bulldozed from the landscape and the great post-war dream of a Utopian Jerusalem in concrete was erased from the history books as an embarrassing episode we don’t talk about in front of the children. How unimaginable all that is in ‘All That Mighty Heart’ – a long way from the few surviving estates degenerating into the crumbling sinks we avoid today.

It goes without saying that it’s an idealised version of Britain, one that consciously overlooks the grinding poverty and social injustices that many members of the country’s population were experiencing at the time it was produced; but it’s not a film intended to highlight such issues, merely to present the aspirational lifestyle that the incoming age of social mobility was to make within the reach of thousands before the window sealed-up again at the end of the 20th century. In its own way, it apes the similarly idealised images of the American Dream that characterised Eisenhower’s USA of the 50s; those images also obscured numerous uncomfortable truths, but proved enduring as a selling point to outsiders looking-in, and as many of the British cinematic shorts of the 60s were exported to the colonies, it was important to uphold a positive image of the mother country.

In my own edit, I inserted clips from a contemporary public information film that encourages a nascent Neighbourhood Watch approach, as a shifty character in a shabby suit is spotted on one of those shiny new estates whilst he tries a few doors of houses with hubby at work and his wife at the shopping precinct. A vigilant housewife dials 999 and a chain of events is set in motion that concludes with the opportunistic thief being apprehended by a police patrol car before he’s even exited the estate. This in itself is as much an image of a vanished Britain as anything in the original film and offers curious comfort that if crime should be noted and reported it will actually be dealt with. Besides, is the vision of Britain as seen in the likes of ‘All That Mighty Heart’ any less idealised than the vision of Britain as espoused by someone like Sadiq Khan, which likes to portray the nation as a kind of permanent multicultural Pride parade? Both visions contain grains of truth, but neither can be said to accurately reflect the attitude of the country as a whole; therefore, we can look back at ‘Look at Life’, ‘Pathé Pictorial’ or ‘All That Mighty Heart’ and genuinely mourn what we’ve lost, because we have lost something, even if it was merely an ideal.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/769970801

LONDON CALLING

Radio 3Many years ago I visited a museum housing the numerous inventions of Thomas Edison and heard with my own ears his 1878 recording of ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ on a tinfoil sheet via phonograph cylinder, having been led to believe it was the first-ever recording of the human voice. I subsequently learnt of Edison’s protection racket that forced the embryonic moving picture industry to relocate from the East Coast to the West, and was pleased to discover this apparently unpleasant individual had been beaten to sound recording by the best part of 20 years. It is now officially acknowledged that the actual inaugural recording of the human voice took place in 1860 by a Frenchman, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. It’s worth putting his achievement into context by noting other events of 1860. This is the year that saw the publication of George Eliot’s ‘The Mill on the Floss’, Wilkie Collins’s ‘The Woman in White’, and the beginning of Dickens’s ‘Great Expectations’ as serialised in his magazine, ‘All the Year Round’; it was the year that Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce defended Darwin’s theories in one of the most famous Oxford University debates, with none other than Lewis Carroll (AKA Charles Dodgson) in attendance; and the further laying of future foundations took place with the first recognised football fixture, Sheffield FC versus Hallam FC, as well as the opening of the first-ever fish & chip shops.

So, into this mid-Victorian melee we’re all familiar with arrives the means of preserving the present on tape – or paper, or cylinder, whichever you prefer. However one looks at it, this was one of the great breakthroughs of mankind in an epoch that seemed to contain an abundance of them. Like all inventions of the 19th century, it took place with simultaneous experiments that would eventually combine to produce the mass-media communications of the 20th century, with radio being the first beneficiary. The technology of wireless telegraphy can be dated as far back as the 1830s, but numerous pioneers in the field throughout the 19th century led the way to the groundbreaking visionary Gugliemro Marconi, who set up his own company in 1894 to develop the potential of wireless telegraphy centred on Hertzian radio transmission waves. Marconi worked out a way to transmit signals around a mile and-a-half, which was then believed to be as far as radio waves could be transmitted; once Marconi calculated the means of transmitting as far as two miles, he was awarded a British patent and established a radio station on the Isle of Wight in 1897 as well as opening a wireless factory in Chelmsford.

At the same time that Marconi was working in the UK, the Canadian-American inventor Reginald Fessenden was claiming he’d transmitted the human voice rather than Morse Code messages by 1900, managing a distance of a mile; Fessenden was responsible for the first recognisable radio broadcast, taking place in Massachusetts in 1906, when he read a passage from the Bible and played the violin, a broadcast that was picked up by ships at sea. The US continued to pioneer radio with the first acknowledged news broadcast from Detroit in 1920; an indication of just how rapidly radio technology was moving also came in 1920 when a New York station transmitted a series of music concerts that could be heard up to a distance of 100 miles away, a great leap forward replicated in Argentina that same year, despite the dearth of radio receivers to actually hear it. Meanwhile, back in Blighty Marconi’s experiments paid off with the establishment of a station known as 2LO in 1922, situated at Marconi House in the Strand.

As with all technological breakthroughs, the development of wireless technology in the opening decades of the 20th century is so easily taken for granted when those of us for whom it’s always been there find it impossible to imagine a time without it. Prior to the invention of recorded sound, let alone the radio, one could only listen to music if one happened to be within physical earshot of where it was being played; suddenly, it was possible to hear a past-tense recording of an orchestra or hear it as it was being played live hundreds of miles away; this had never previously been possible in the history of human civilisation, so it’s no wonder the seemingly limitless possibilities of recorded and broadcast sound caught on like wildfire in the 1920s. However, with the GPO responsible for issuing licences to broadcast in the UK, concerns over interference with military communications cautiously limited transmissions on 2LO and its sister station 2MT to an hour a day. The pastime of tuning in to wireless broadcasts had been something of a minority interest in Britain until it was decided to bring everything under one convenient umbrella organisation which was christened the British Broadcasting Company. Stations broadcasting in Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Cardiff and Glasgow fell under the BBC banner and laid the foundations for the future BBC Regions in the process.

The formation of the BBC in 1922 – inaugurated by the debut broadcast of 2LO from Marconi House exactly 100 years ago today – helped spread radio beyond the confines of audio enthusiasts hunched over their ‘cat’s whiskers’ sets and transformed it into a mainstream phenomenon. Within a year, the BBC had relocated to new studios at Savoy Hill, had established its own listings magazine, the Radio Times (first edition published in September 1923) and had extended its reach to Aberdeen, Bournemouth and Sheffield. By the end of 1923, Big Ben’s chimes had been transmitted for the first time as a means of welcoming the New Year across the country and networked news bulletins had become regular fixtures on the airwaves; 1924 was barely out of nappies before the Shipping Forecast had made itself heard on the BBC, and the likes of the Greenwich Time Signal, ‘The Daily Service’ and ‘Choral Evensong’ were not long in following. It wasn’t until 1927 that the British Broadcasting Corporation was born, but the various elements we continue to regard as BBC mainstays were already in place before the company became a corporation.

Like many contemporary listeners and viewers, being exposed to all the self-congratulatory centenary celebrations of an institution that hasn’t resembled the institution it used to be for the best part of a decade or more makes the contrast between then and now unavoidably glaring. Being forced to look back is an exercise that merely serves to remind us of everything the BBC has lost – or has voluntarily surrendered – of late, and the BBC itself has unwittingly indulged in this exercise to its own detriment, having to fall back on its rich cultural legacy because it can hardly point to its current output in order to justify its continued existence. The impression one comes away with is that the BBC is another one of this country’s glorious museums, with its most priceless exhibits at least 30 years old; although these dusty artefacts are all worthy of preservation, to carry on pretending anything produced today will one day stand alongside those heirlooms is to fail to recognise the ongoing value of the BBC’s family silver expired sometime at the beginning of the Millennium.

Yes, it’s worth recalling the genesis of the BBC as a means of tracking the progress of mass-communications in this country, for it was indeed a significant development that shaped the nature of broadcasting for three invigorating decades – until the inevitable breaking of the monopoly with the arrival of ITV in 1955. It’s futile to try and recapture the sense of excitement there must have been in turning the dial in 1922 and coming across a string quartet playing live at a venue situated at the other end of the country; I guess you had to be there. But it should be acknowledged as an important signpost on the road to where we are now, even if where we are now is somewhere that a BBC has little relevance; and the main blame for that rests with the BBC itself.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/769970801

UNDERGROUND, OVERGROUND

7Turning on, tuning in and dropping out may have been the mantra of American Psychedelic salesman-cum-guru Timothy Leary, but who wouldn’t want to turn on, tune in and drop out of 2022? Which will live a longer life – Liz Truss as PM or a lettuce? Pink-haired, privately-educated Titanias and Ptolemys defacing beauty because they have none in their souls – f*** the lot of ‘em; I’d rather take a welcome diversion from the here and now by reflecting my recent listening habits. No idea why, but I’ve been drawn towards Psychedelia of late, albeit the British brand. And it was the Brits for me who really stamped their personality on this endearing episode in the pop narrative of the 1960s. Gary Brooker, singer and keyboardist with Procol Harum, once offered a feasible explanation as to why so many UK bands whose roots were deep in Americana abruptly dropped their tribute act routines; after two or three years of selling coals to Newcastle during the ‘British Invasion’ of the Billboard Hot 100, the same cultural exchange that enabled our artists to touch down on US soil bore fruit on this side of the Atlantic when numerous American acts of the Blues/R&B persuasion played over here and made the white boys realise there was no point with the real deal in town.

Many took a leaf out of Ray Davies’s book, who, following the four-year ban of The Kinks from any further Stateside tours by the American Federation of Musicians, turned away from US influences and looked inwards – or backwards, back to the recurring theme of a long-lost Albion that has regularly resurfaced throughout English literature, art and music for the best part of 200 years or more. The pop musical strain of this was evident as early as 1965 – in The Beatles’ ‘In My Life’ and The Rolling Stones’ ‘Play with Fire’, two songs that oozed a sonic sensibility more reminiscent of the English Baroque than the black American sounds that had provided the launch-pad for both bands. The Yardbirds were another British band whose basic R&B live set was junked for their far more adventurous 45s, and the sitar-like tunings of the guitars on The Kinks’ single ‘See My Friends’ swiftly infiltrated the playing style of Yardbirds axe-man Jeff Beck before George Harrison and Brian Jones sourced the actual instrument and embellished their respective bands with Eastern exotica.

The innovation of stream-of-consciousness lyricism via Bob Dylan into the expanding palette of pop echoed the nonsense poetry of John Lennon, with the latter realising he could write songs employing the same wordplay he’d published as poetry rather than relying on the boy-meets-girl formula that had been a winner so far. The dependable fuel that had propelled the Beat Boom bands from subterranean clubs to the nation’s theatres was also proving inadequate for the grinding package tour circuit of the era; The Beatles had become accustomed to alternative stimulants during their Hamburg apprenticeship, and when Dylan introduced them to ‘pot’, alcohol ceased to be the go-to drug of choice before and after a gig. Marijuana permeated the pop scene from the mid-60s onwards as it had Jazz 20-odd years before, and its laidback effects were discernible in The Beatles’ ‘Rubber Soul’ album at the end of ’65. By the following year, pot had given the leading British acts an appetite for other illicit substances; and once LSD wormed its way into the recreational hours of bands seeking a break from showbiz demands, the hallucinogenic properties of the latest speakeasy fad inevitably infected the creative process.

The inaugural outing for the influence of Acid came with several tracks on The Beatles’ 1966 LP ‘Revolver’, when the groundbreaking manipulation of electronic trickery previously only used by the likes of Musique concrète pioneers or the BBC Radiophonic Workshop found its way into mainstream pop for the first time. Over in the US, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys was proving himself to be on the same wavelength as his British counterparts, but his increasing isolation from his bandmates and eventual breakdown halted the progress he was making. The field was clear for The Beatles to build upon the likes of ‘Rain’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ by the time 1966 turned to 1967, and they emerged from Abbey Road with facial hair and far-out threads to promote ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Coupled with Paul McCartney’s joyous slice of uplifting suburban pop, ‘Penny Lane’, the hazy, Alice in Wonderland-like aural tapestry of Lennon’s ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ probably played its part in – as Philip Larkin noted – losing The Beatles the undying love of the secretaries who’d frequented lunchtime gigs at The Cavern; but it served to elevate pop music to the level of Art that only Jazz and Classical had previously been afforded. It laid the ground for the unprecedented cultural impact of ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and also drew a line in the sand between Pop and Rock that was highlighted by the fact this double A-sided single was kept from the top spot by Engelbert Humperdinck’s ballad, ‘Release Me’.

Engelbert himself encountered the sudden schism in pop when he participated in a memorable package tour in early ’67, sharing a bill with The Walker Brothers, Cat Stevens…and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The latter had been brought to the Mecca of Swinging London by ex-Animals bassist Chas Chandler and launched upon an unsuspecting UK pop scene with a string of instant hits that helped bring the word ‘Psychedelic’ into the mainstream as an overnight genre that came with its own distinctive weaponry: Fab gear from Carnaby Street (and accompanying coiffure); groups with strange names that sounded like Victorian medicines; backwards guitars and unusual instrumentation; lyrical subject matter rooted in a very Edwardian idea of an Arcadian childhood; and allusions to hallucinatory experiences that both sound and vision attempted to replicate, whether in groovy outfits, Art Nouveau-influenced album sleeves, or the obligatory sitar. New acts sprang up like magic mushrooms and established acts embraced the changes. Suddenly, pop no longer equated with Herman’s Hermits headlining ‘Sunday Night at the Palladium’.

This new scene had its own press (the International Times and Oz), its own club – the UFO on Tottenham Court Road – and a slew of new bands, the most commercially successful being Pink Floyd and Procol Harum. Bandwagon-jumpers were naturally aplenty, but at its best British Psychedelia represented the first real break with America. The US version was less musically experimental and tended to have a harder, radical edge that enabled it to soundtrack opposition to the Vietnam War. Deprived of such a cause, Brits instead took a trip to an imaginary village green and some (such as Syd Barrett) never came back. In a sense, the seeds of Psychedelia’s short lifespan were present in some of its brightest stars. The Bach-like vibes of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ – along with the flamboyant virtuosity of The Nice and the symphonic pomp of The Moody Blues – paved the way for Prog Rock; the turbo-charged Psychedelic Blues of power trio Cream (as well as Hendrix) laid the foundations for Hard Rock; and the surrealistic whimsy of Donovan and the Incredible String Band helped the likes of Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span to give Folk a hippie makeover by the time the 60s drew to a close.

When The Beatles and Stones rounded-off ’67 with the last glorious hurrahs for British Psychedelia with ‘I Am The Walrus’ and ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’ respectively, the writing was already on the wall. Both the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ TV movie and the Stones’ unfairly-maligned album were savaged by critics and audiences alike; after The Beatles’ Indian sojourn at the feet of the Maharishi in early ’68, they returned with a stripped-down sound that rejected the elaborate soundscapes of the past two years, and the Stones followed suit. The mainstream pop scene staggered on in its Psychedelic wardrobe for another few months, but by the end of ’68 the portal to Wonderland had been sealed up. Having said that, it’s still hidden in the woods for any curious musical tomb-raiders; and right now, I’m one of them.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/746266089

AFTERNOON DELIGHT

Pebble MillI recently remarked to a friend that much of the 1960s architecture that once littered our cities now feels like a kind of collective hallucination, with so little of it surviving as evidence it ever existed. And I’m not just talking about the most severe of Brutalist blocks, either; some of the buildings of that era which strove to create a Modernist elegance have gone too. Take the BBC studios at Pebble Mill, Birmingham. A state-of-the-art, purpose-built broadcasting complex that was even home to the residents of Ambridge when it opened amidst something of a fanfare in 1971, Pebble Mill was the most prominent television centre outside of London for the best part of 30 years and also served as emergency backup for its Shepherds Bush senior; should anything unforeseen happen to curtail transmissions at TVC, all BBC output would switch to leafy, suburban Edgbaston. The actual Pebble Mill building, as with BBC Television Centre itself, was eventually a victim of the changing way programmes were made from the 90s onwards, with the farming out of production to independent companies negating the need for a sprawling, MGM-style HQ. When it was discovered the edifice was also plagued by so-called ‘concrete cancer’, the decision was made to vacate the building and Pebble Mill closed in 2004, with demolition coming the following year.

As one of the six National Production Centres of the BBC regions, BBC Midlands initially made do with a converted cinema as home until it was decided Britain’s Second City required a more prestigious base. Birmingham received the green light in 1967 and the impressive end result was ready for business by the time Princess Anne snipped the ribbon in the summer of 1971. Long before some genius in the capital had the bright idea that the BBC should relocate to a soulless slab in Swinging Salford in order to demonstrate it wasn’t London-centric, the Corporation had already erected a worthy companion to Television Centre in the middle of the country. A promotional film showed Midlands household name Tom Coyne strolling around the new studios on the eve of its opening, and local pride in the building was evident throughout; not only would Pebble Mill produce programmes solely for BBC Midlands, but it would also produce more networked shows than any other region outside London. And one of those networked shows would stamp Pebble Mill onto the consciousness of an entire generation, especially those of school-age in the 1970s who weren’t averse to throwing the odd ‘sickie’.

With television today seemingly incapable of taking a breather, it’s hard to believe now that there were once strict limitations on airtime in this country. Until 1972, barely 50 hours a week were allowed for both the BBC and ITV, leaving huge swathes of the day – especially in the afternoon – completely unoccupied by programming. With the abolition of this rule by the Heath Government, the two national broadcasters swiftly made plans to expand their daytime schedules. For ITV, this meant the introduction of lunchtime children’s shows like ‘Rainbow’ as well as the memorable daily drama, ‘Crown Court’ and soaps such as ‘General Hospital’ and ‘Emmerdale Farm’; the BBC, on the other hand, opted to produce a programme that could be regarded as a flagship for its extended hours, and it decided to showcase its shiny new Birmingham base for all the nation to see in the process. Thus was born ‘Pebble Mill at One’, the long-running magazine show which debuted 50 years ago, on 2 October 1972.

Looking at the Radio Times from that first week of ‘Pebble Mill at One’ (featuring The Goons armed with leeks on the front cover), what’s most surprising is that the BBC lunchtime news back then simply comprised a five-minute bulletin aired at 12.55; living today in an age of rolling tedium, it feels as though less really was more in 1972. ITN pointed the way to where we are now by launching the more familiar half-hour ‘First Report’ a fortnight later, but BBC1 viewers were instead treated to a programme presented from the incongruous environs of a foyer. Initially, it was intended for the show to be set in the usual surroundings of a standard studio, but all in the building were fully booked-up, and the serendipitous choice of the Pebble Mill foyer actually gave the programme a unique look from the off. We’re now accustomed to regional newsreaders reciting headlines with a composite skyline of their local area behind them, but in 1972 it was extremely novel to see an outdoor backdrop – and one that was for real, with traffic and pedestrians passing-by in the distance and the changing of the seasons visible throughout. The programme, which originally ran for just 30 minutes (later expanded to 45), was hosted on that first day by experienced regional presenter Bob Langley, whose instant appeal to the housewives of Britain ensured ‘Pebble Mill at One’ had a solid, guaranteed audience from the very start.

Langley was gradually joined by presenters who rapidly became familiar faces: the avuncular Scotsman Donny MacLeod, the elegant Marian Foster, the personable David Seymour, and the future newsreader Jan Leeming. The programme’s remit was wide-ranging, with subjects from the serious to the light-hearted falling under its Monday-Friday spotlight. There’d be interviews with celebrities or political figures passing through the Midlands, cookery spots with Clement Freud, gardening with Peter Seabrook, musical interludes – usually featuring either Cleo Laine or Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen (or so it always seemed) – and the unpredictability of live broadcasting which, as with ‘Blue Peter’, gave ‘Pebble Mill at One’ an edge that implied anything could happen. Sometimes it did, such as a Christmas edition when the inebriated journalist Molly Parkin admitted she was pissed on air; or when a placard held by a member of the public during an outside broadcast requested Marian Foster ‘get her tits out’. The original theme tune for the show, titled ‘As You Please’, remains one of those sonic signposts of time and place that takes anyone who was there back there in an instant, especially school-kids whose dinner hour was drawing to a close – or the lucky ones armed with Lucozade.

If you were one of those lucky ones, ‘Pebble Mill at One’ was central to the off-school TV experience, along with ITV’s ‘Good Afternoon’ and ‘Paint Along with Nancy’, not to mention whichever ‘Watch with Mother’ entry followed the show at 1.45. By the late 70s, ‘Pebble Mill at One’ was such an integral part of BBC1’s schedule that it even spread its wings into the weekend with the launch of a nocturnal sister show, ‘Saturday Night at the Mill’. Filling the same slot at ‘Parkinson’ when that was on a break, the later hour resulted in a more risqué selection of guests, including porn star Linda Lovelace and a characteristic bout of untamed entertainment from Oliver Reed, who decided to remove his trousers when being interviewed. Come the 1980s, ‘Pebble Mill at One’ remained an afternoon fixture with viewing figures that enticed even the most unlikely guests into the foyer – including Morrissey, who appeared on the programme to plug ‘Meat is Murder’ in 1985. But its days were numbered.

By 1986, an even more established mainstay of the BBC1 daytime schedules – programmes for schools and colleges – had been shunted over to BBC2; and with breakfast TV now occupying the start of the day, the changing television landscape resulted in a revamp of the afternoon line-up, with ‘Pebble Mill at One’ being the major casualty. The final edition was broadcast on 23 May 1986, and though there was a short-lived revival five years later, it wasn’t presented from the Pebble Mill foyer and therefore resembled just another bland daytime TV show. Besides, the original series is the one everyone of a certain age remembers. No, it wasn’t ‘The Ascent of Man’ or ‘Life on Earth’, but simply a fine example of how the BBC once even did lightweight better than anyone else.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/746266089

IT’S BEEN AN AGE

Stones CricketAs a quaint, archaic phrase inextricably bound-up with the monochrome optimism of the immediate post-war 1950s, ‘The New Elizabethan Age’ hadn’t stood the test of time until its recent revival (for obvious reasons). However, with the passing of the Queen whose name this imaginary era had rented, do we now acknowledge it was an authentic epoch in itself or do we accept whatever achievements history might like to squeeze under such a convenient umbrella label simply took place on Her Majesty’s watch even when she wasn’t watching? Will the future file this age away so that the past 70 years will retrospectively group together everything from The Beatles to Brexit, Bond to Bowie, Coronation Street to Concorde, Thunderbirds to Thatcherism, Paddington to Punk Rock, and from Tommy Steele to Tim Berners-Lee? Well, it’s probably in the hands of the generations who never lived through it, though many of us who lived through at least half of it recognise whatever creative and cultural renaissance this country coincidentally experienced whilst Brenda occupied the throne drew to a close long before she breathed her last at Balmoral.

As if to confirm this, a video that did the rounds on Twitter this week featured the contemporary ‘star’ Rita Ora labouring under the misapprehension that she’s Aretha Franklin reincarnated as a lap-dancer. The focus of said video was Ora’s attempt to turn Kate Bush’s ‘Running up that Hill’, into a sub-Beyoncé vehicle for the extended – not to say excruciating – practicing of scales. On the video, Ora evidently believes what she’s doing marks her out as an artist of some repute; the sycophantic encouragement of an audience perpetuating her fantasy is as sad as Ora’s embarrassing conviction of her own greatness, though both are victims of low expectations and an inability to question the hype. The Auto-Tuned digital trickery that fools some into believing deluded marionettes with all the soul of The Archies are worthy of bracketing along with the genuine articles who shone so brightly and so far-reaching in the first half of the New Elizabethan Age is never more exposed than in the live arena; but so desensitised are the Spotified public to the charade that convinces them they’re witness to landmark talents rather than average mediocrities, it already feels like it’s too late to extinguish the artistic inferno our Rome has long been engulfed in.

The last monarch to occupy the throne for over half-a-century, Queen Victoria, of course gave her name to her age and was witness to her own revolution as a society transformed by industry – everything from the railways to the telegraph to the telephone and the internal combustion engine – also saw imperial and civic expansion as well as the codification and professionalism of sports that are still with us; and as literacy grew, it was fitting that the written word became the prominent artistic medium. The great novelists of the 19th century stamped their art on their era as much as musicians were to do in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign. But just as few of the novelists who came after Victoria were able to make quite the same immense cultural impact enjoyed by the giants of her era, the musical survivors of the 1960s and 70s remain the biggest draws on a touring circuit which would struggle to break even without the profitable presence of ‘Heritage Rock’. Perhaps future generations will discern the decline of the dominant creative form of the New Elizabethan Age and tie its end in with the death of Elizabeth herself, despite the fact it was wielding a walking stick well in advance of Her Majesty.

Those who find themselves prominent movers and shakers during an age – or at the very least find themselves reporting from the frontline of it – tend not to name their eras; as a term, the New Elizabethan Age seems to have been bandied about a lot up to and around the 1953 Coronation by that day’s media, almost imposed on the populace in the hope it would catch on. But it doesn’t recur much thereafter. When England swung a decade later, you’d be hard pushed to find Carnaby Street referenced as emblematic of the New Elizabethan Age; and I’ve no doubt the groovy guys and gals haunting that particular thoroughfare would have laughed if anyone had tried to pin such an antiquated label on their party. It probably sounded terribly ‘square’ by 1966 – just another dated and discarded piece of slang when the verbal lexicon was moving at a pace those beyond the bubble could never hope to keep up with. But if one were to return to the beginning of the Queen’s reign, perhaps the undeniable boost to weary austerity Britain of having a young woman on the throne instead of an old man tapped into something that was already slowly taking shape, something that would lead all the way from the South Bank to Soho.

Looking back, it’s clear that the confident Modernist architecture which received a nationwide window at the 1951 Festival of Britain anticipated the first flowering of something new. The sky-scraping, Dan Dare-like futurism of the Skylon and the equally Space-Age flourishes of the Royal Festival Hall pointed the way towards related edifices of the early 60s such as the BBC Television Centre and Coventry Cathedral. The consecration of the latter in 1962 was accompanied by the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’, an aptly moving piece aired in the shadow of the bombed-out ruin it replaced. Britten himself was perhaps the key artistic figure of that early Elizabethan Age, being an incredibly prolific and lionised composer nonetheless saddled with the antisocial urges of his sexuality at a time when the Law had yet to embrace the spirit of change. Like Philip Larkin, whose melancholy musings on the type of sexual intercourse that characterised the country after 1963 were laced with regret at missing out, Britten belonged to a generation still coping with the seismic interruption of global conflict to their lives, an experience that would always distance them from the kids searching for shrapnel on bombsites. Those kids were the ones in whose hands the glorious bloom of the New Elizabethan Age rested, and whose efforts would be most richly rewarded.

Britten’s sublime ‘Four Sea Interludes’ – which were originally composed as instrumental passages for his celebrated opera, ‘Peter Grimes’ – were already on my looped playlist before events at Victoria and Albert’s Highland hideaway pushed the New Elizabethan Age back onto the agenda. But as a suddenly poignant soundtrack, they seem to speak to something recent developments have reignited; they are the sound of an ancient island nation instinctively looking out to sea, evoking everything from the place names on the Shipping Forecast to the dying director Derek Jarman pottering about his garden as the toxic silhouette of Dungeness Nuclear Power Station loiters on the windswept horizon. It goes without saying that the history of these islands predates the awareness of those who dictate the popular narrative, so that any ‘age’ doesn’t take place in isolation; it usually has roots stretching back decades, even centuries. Maybe the passing of Her Majesty and the age to which she gave her name has simply brought everything we’ve taken for granted back into focus and provoked a little soul-searching. But we have been here before – just not for a long time.

Whether Vaughan Williams borrowing from Thomas Tallis, Fairport Convention electrifying traditional English Folk songs, or any updated production of Shakespeare you care to mention, little in British popular culture springs from the soil without having been planted there by our forefathers. And if the crown of the kingdom happens to remain on the same head for long enough, chances are history will round up every disparate collection of creative vagabonds and name the years through which they operated after the sovereign observing (and occasionally rewarding) their efforts. In this respect, the New Elizabethan Age was for real – a unique renaissance we’ve all been beneficiaries of.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/746266089

NON-TOXIC MASCULINITY

ProfessionalsThere’s been a lot of understandable talk these past few days of how her late Majesty gave the British people a sense of security when every other Great British bastion proved fallible; if all else failed, the Queen was always there. Now she’s gone, who can we rely on? Well, at one time – albeit over 40 years ago – we could rely on CI5. This uniquely hardline service, sandwiched between Special Branch and MI6, was established in the tumultuous climate of the 1970s to deal with the escalating threats to the British way of life from international terrorism and increasingly sophisticated espionage. Headed by the redoubtable Major George Cowley, CI5 drew on the best men from the armed forces and the police and rode roughshod over all the legal obstacles that hindered ordinary coppers from nailing their man. CI5 had a remit that precluded niceties and this was reflected in the guys that fronted it, especially agents Bodie and Doyle. The former was an ex-military man who’d earned his spurs as a mercenary-for-hire in Africa; the latter rose to the rank of DC in the Police Force. When partnered together, Bodie and Doyle proved to be the ideal combination to cope with the challenges that threatened Britannia’s borders as the country careered towards the 80s.

Of course, CI5 only existed in the parallel universe of the cathode ray tube between 1977 and 1983. George Cowley was Gordon Jackson, Bodie was Lewis Collins, and Doyle was Martin Shaw. But from the moment that car crashed through a plate glass window and arguably one of the most energising theme tunes in TV history pumped its testosterone-fuelled beats into the living room, CI5 was for real – well, for an hour every Sunday evening, anyway. ‘The Professionals’ was a film series produced for London Weekend Television, being the brainchild of Brian Clemens, the man who had developed ‘The Avengers’ into such a memorably quirky and stylish series ten years before; having recently revived it as ‘The New Avengers’, Clemens was eager to create something less eccentric and more pertinent to the brutal 1970s and he hatched the concept of CI5 as an organisation to hang his idea around.

The success of ‘The Sweeney’ (1975-78) had shown there was an appetite for a hard-hitting police series in which the protagonists might bend the rules to nail society’s nastiest bastards; the popularity of the swearing, smoking, shagging, punching and boozing Regan & Carter was a testament to the charismatic chemistry of the two leads (John Thaw and Dennis Waterman) and was enhanced by sharp, witty writing. The show was produced by Euston Films for Thames Television, holders of ITV’s weekday franchise in the capital, and networked across all the ITV regions. The capital’s franchise holder for weekends, LWT, was desperate to come up with something similar, and Clemens’ idea sounded like just the series the company was looking for, combining the familiar police elements with the spy factor that had proven successful in the past with the likes of ‘Callan’, and adding the terrorism angle that was a reality for the British people after several years of IRA bombs causing mayhem on the mainland. The show had the potential to capture the public’s imagination in the same way ‘The Sweeney’ had, but it all depended on recruiting the right men for the job.

Gordon Jackson certainly wouldn’t have been the obvious choice to play the brash, abrasive boss of CI5; he was a household name thanks to a very different kind of character indeed – Hudson, the urbane head butler on LWT’s internationally popular period soap, ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’. However, Jackson proved himself to be far more versatile an actor than people gave him credit for and was as capable of barking out orders at his subordinates as any Sergeant-Major on the parade ground. After first-choice Jon Finch decided against being tied to a series, Martin Shaw, whose grumblings about his time on the show have become part of the programme’s legend, was selected for the part of ex-copper Ray Doyle; Shaw had an impressive theatre and TV CV that had been steadily building throughout the 70s. Contrary to popular belief, his distinctive bubble-haired look predated ‘The Professionals’ – it’s evident in an episode of Nigel Kneale’s anthology series, ‘Beasts’, from the year before he joined CI5 – although Shaw’s concessions to the sartorial styles of the era perhaps placed the show in a time capsule that often distracts from its enduring strengths. Initially, he was pared with Anthony Andrews as Bodie – an actor whose aristocratic bearing proved ideal for the series that made him a household name in 1981, ‘Brideshead Revisited’; but Andrews’ attributes didn’t work for Bodie and the part was recast after several days of shooting.

In stepped Lewis Collins, a lesser ‘thespian’ as far as Martin Shaw was concerned, though an actor who had also established himself on the small-screen, albeit via the vehicle of the sitcom; in Collins’s case it was the mid-70s ITV show, ‘The Cuckoo Waltz’, co-starring the beautiful Diane Keen. Called upon to play it straight, Collins nevertheless injected a level of humour into the role of Bodie that helped give the show some light relief; the banter between Bodie and Doyle – especially during extended in-car scenes when the two were screeching tyres en route to their next assignment – oozed a natural camaraderie that gave the series a great deal of its appeal. Regardless of some rather chaotic behind-the-scenes shenanigans involving lack of money, delayed shooting schedules and scripts being rewritten at the eleventh hour, ‘The Professionals’ debuted across the ITV network at the end of December 1977. Despite premiering in that television no-man’s land between Christmas and New Year, the show proved to be pretty much an overnight success. By the opening months of 1978, the benefits of being seen by all ITV viewers at the same time – a luxury denied the ITC series of the 60s and early 70s – ensured high viewing figures and instant fame for the two main leads.

‘The Professionals’ drew upon a vast, rich pool of experienced TV dramatists for its stories – men who had cut their teeth on the long-running series British television specialised in at the time – and also inherited the crew from ‘The Sweeney’ when that drew to a close. The talent behind the camera combining with the talent on-screen made for a heady mix and there followed three or four years when ‘The Professionals’ was one of the highest-rated shows on TV. It had its critics – usually hurling accusations that it was mindless, misogynistic, macho entertainment; but it was very much a show of its time, and the exhilarating action elements didn’t detract from the routinely engaging relationship at the core of its success. Yes, violence was paramount, though, unlike ‘The Sweeney’, there was no what was then referred to as ‘bad language’. The only time ‘The Professionals’ crossed a line was in an episode called ‘Klansmen’; it was pulled from transmission at the last minute and has still never been seen on terrestrial television in this country. It’s been included on every VHS and DVD release of the series, but an episode that actually addresses the issue of racism in an intelligent and honest manner stands up as a good example of how there were more dimensions to ‘The Professionals’ than merely the one.

Currently viewing the series for the first time since the 1990s, I think the old-school charm often associated with any vintage show loaded with plenty of ‘well, you couldn’t get away with that today’ moments gives it a ‘guilty pleasure’ quality; but when stood beside so much of contemporary mainstream fare, ‘The Professionals’ comes across far better than it ever did in its heyday as every little boy’s favourite undemanding series. Standards were higher on TV in the late 70s and it certainly shows in 2022. Moreover, the virtues at which Bodie and Doyle excelled were actually valued at the time rather than dismissed and denigrated as ‘toxic’; and despite changing fashions dictated by a cultural elite obsessed with what the public ought to want as opposed to what they do, these are virtues still valued by the majority, who would no doubt warm to ‘The Professionals’ all over again if given the chance.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/746266089

FAR BEYOND THE PALE HORIZON

Roxy 2When it comes to pop music, familiarity may not necessarily breed contempt, but repetition can block the ears to the sensation that comes with hearing something for the first time; it’s almost impossible to recapture that sensation unless enough years go by in which the ears are spared further exposure to it – and tuning in to the predictable playlists of ‘oldies’ stations is something of a hindrance to the process. One doesn’t necessarily have to have been around at the time of the record’s release to have experienced said sensation, though perhaps to fully appreciate just how groundbreaking a piece of music was in its day, it probably helps if you haven’t already heard everything that came after it. Anyway, as we continue along the path of years being characterised by how many landmark anniversaries they contain rather than whatever the current excuse for pop music happens to be doing when nobody’s listening, this year contains the usual multitude of significant dates. A record that might easily be overlooked from the anniversary list takes us back half-a-century, which is difficult to comprehend when the track in question still sounds like the future, albeit a future we never reached. I’m talking about ‘Virginia Plain’ by Roxy Music.

Released 50 years ago this month, the debut single by the intriguing Art Rock band with the unique potential to appeal to viewers of ‘Top of the Pops’ as much as ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ followed hot on the heels of Roxy Music’s first (eponymous) LP, which was climbing up to its peak position of No.10 on the albums chart. Throughout 1972, the band had been steadily building a reputation as ‘one to watch’, cannily supporting breakthrough man-of-the-moment David Bowie at the prestigious Rainbow Theatre and catching the eyes and ears of a music press eager for the Next Big Thing. The divisions between Rock and Pop were becoming wider in the early 70s, with huge acts like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd flourishing on album sales alone, not even needing the regular stimulus of a hit single to keep them in the public eye as bands in the 60s had; in the singles chart, the likes of Gary Glitter, Sweet, Slade and T. Rex were cleaning up as a consequence, and it seemed as though Glam was for the teenyboppers whilst Prog was reserved for the students – one was made for the affordable 45, the other was made for the expensive LP.

However, with the release of his ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album (and its accompanying hit single, ‘Starman’), David Bowie paved the way for a strain of Glam that elevated the genre above the primal stomp and gave it a few musical and lyrical A-levels in the process. Roxy Music were able to capitalise on this climate, producing esoteric and eclectic sounds infused with pure pop melodies and presenting the package in the kind of kitsch, exotic dress-sense that was anathema to the dominant denim-clad Hard Rock brigade. But Bryan Ferry, the band’s founder member and frontman, had come up through the art school route with an appreciation of the visual and recognition of its importance in selling a band brand. The gatefold sleeve of the band’s debut album featured glamorous Ossie Clark catwalk model Kari-Ann Muller, whilst the individual portraits of the band inside complemented the cover, especially those of Ferry himself, synthesizer scholar Brian Eno and woodwind wizard Andy McKay.

As was fairly common at the time, no tracks were lifted from the debut LP as singles, even though several of them would have performed well if they had, encapsulating as they did Roxy’s unique blend of all pop that had gone before and all that was to come. With Bryan Ferry’s distinctive vocal delivery drawing on pre-Rock ‘n’ Roll stylists such as the crooners of the 40s & 50s as well as the quintessential English camp of Noel Coward, it was plain here was a band breaking with the recent past by borrowing from the distant past; but the inclusion of Eno’s experimental soundscapes looked forward, whilst Phil Manzanera’s guitar riffs and Andy McKay’s frenetic saxophone kept the band just about moored in 1972. It was an original and exhilarating mix that, coupled with Roxy’s louche, decadent twist on Glam fashion, made them stand out like a sore sequin. The fact they were prepared to launch an assault on the singles chart reflected Bryan Ferry’s passion for the three-minute pop song, and when it eventually appeared Roxy’s debut 45 was destined to be no run-of-the-mill hit. It had to distil everything that had made the LP such a vibrant and exciting listen into a short enough timespan to earn the band the coveted ‘Top of the Pops’ appearance. And Roxy rose to the challenge in style.

A TOTP audience that was still recovering from the seismic shock of Bowie’s ‘Starman’ performance barely a month before was ill-prepared for the debut of Roxy Music on the show, which was broadcast on 24 August. Phil Manzanera’s ‘fly’ sunglasses, Brian Eno’s glistening gloves, drummer Paul Thompson dressed as a circus strongman in ‘Clockwork Orange’ mascara, Andy McKay playing the oboe with his hair tied back as though a Samurai warrior, bassist Rik Kenton passing for a gawky schoolboy, and a surreally suave Bryan Ferry in glittering eye-shadow and a sparkly jacket designed by Anthony Price. They resembled regal aliens beamed down from an early 70s idea of what pop stars in the Year 2000 would look like. And if the presentation of ‘Virginia Plain’ was a treat for the eyes, the record itself was a blistering banquet of sonic delights.

Subverting the standard formula of the pop single, ‘Virginia Plain’ fades in and ends abruptly rather than the other way round; but it’s also a song without a chorus, a song whose title only surfaces as the very last line. The first verse follows what sounds like an autobiography of the band struggling to get a recording deal, yet ‘We’ve been around a long time’ wasn’t necessarily the case, as Roxy didn’t spend years paying their dues on the college circuit; they were far more ambitious and went for the music business jugular from the off. As the song goes on, Ferry’s lyrics expand to encompass the kind of jet-set lifestyle the singer hopes success will bring – ‘Flavours of the mountain streamline/midnight blue casino floors/Dance the cha-cha through till sunrise/opens up exclusive doors’; this continues to the final verse – ‘Far beyond the pale horizon/some place near the desert strand/Where my Studebaker takes me/that’s where I’ll make my stand’. In the song that introduced the majority of the record-buying public to Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry sets his stall out and plots his future for all to see.

Whereas in later years, the prefix ‘Bryan Ferry and…’ became commonplace – largely due both to the public’s failure to distinguish between Roxy Music and Ferry’s concurrent solo career and Ferry’s eventual dominance of the band – early Roxy is very much a team effort. ‘Remake/Remodel’, the opening track on their debut album, contains tongue-in-cheek passages where each member of the band has two bars to showcase their individual instrumental skills; and ‘Virginia Plain’ offers similar opportunities to demonstrate they’re far from a one-man band, especially the instrumental section building up to the final verse, where Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno both shine. There’s no audible kitchen sink in ‘Virginia Plain’, but it sounds like pretty much everything else is present. 50 years old and it remains one of the great debut singles, probably because not only does it not sound like anything else from 1972, it still doesn’t sound like anything else you’ve ever heard.

The single served as the launch-pad for twelve months in which Roxy Music were the most innovative and inventive band in Britain; their second album, ‘For Your Pleasure’, was released in March 1973 and is arguably the band’s finest LP, with ‘Do The Strand’, ‘The Bogus Man’ and ‘In Every Dream Home, A Heartache’ all masterpieces of Roxy’s sublime blend of pop and the avant-garde. Then the strain of containing two such gigantic artistic egos as Ferry and Eno finally provoked a split in the ranks and the latter left the fold; although there were innumerable great songs to follow, Roxy Music were never quite the same again. And no other hit quite matched the superlative originality of their first – half a bloody century ago.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/521025443

FINAL SCORE

Football RadioSure, it’s not the end of the world; but it’s the end of something. The BBC’s decision to drop the classified football results from the long-running ‘Sports Report’ sounds like one of those crass decisions made by a new controller of the station in question (5 Live) who’s keen to make his mark and shake things up a bit. It’s a familiar pattern on BBC radio, like when the Radio 4 UK Theme was axed back in 2006. Commissioned in 1978 to open the station every morning after the handover from the World Service, the medley of traditional English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish melodies heralded the dawn of the day’s broadcasting and quickly became as much of a wireless institution as the theme tune to ‘The Archers’ or the sound of ‘Sailing By’ announcing the arrival of the Shipping Forecast. The man who wielded the axe for the UK Theme was the then-controller of Radio 4, Mark Damazer; many were suspicious this was an action motivated by embarrassment within the ivory corridors of Broadcasting House that such a popular piece of music didn’t reflect the way the BBC likes to think of the nation, though Damazer claimed what he described as ‘a pacy news briefing’ was what listeners wanted first thing on a morning. Well, perhaps it was what the BBC overlords felt they ought to want first thing on a morning. After all, they know what’s best for us.

At a time when theme tunes introduced virtually all radio shows, the debut of ‘Sports Report’ in January 1948 naturally came with its own sonic calling card. ‘Out of the Blue’ was in the same vein as other jaunty themes to be found on the BBC Light Programme during this era, such as ‘Music While You Work’ or ‘Top of the Form’; it fitted perfectly into its times, yet along with the aforementioned theme from ‘The Archers’ and ‘Sailing By’ – as well as the theme to ‘Desert Island Discs’ – it’s one of the few to survive into the 21st century. ‘Out of the Blue’ has long since passed the stage of being regarded as old-fashioned, and its anachronistic sound is now recognised as the aural equivalent of a vintage item of clothing, cherished precisely because it is so antiquated and out of step with the here and now. In a sense, such a tune becomes timeless if it sticks around long enough; had it been replaced in the 80s or 90s, those replacement tunes would now sound more dated and old-fashioned than ‘Out of the Blue’ ever will.

The theme to ‘Sports Report’ is one of those pieces of music so bound up with the time and day of its transmission that it becomes inseparable from it, so utterly woven is it into the fabric of the Saturday teatime experience. Indeed, it’s as impossible to imagine hearing it on any other day as it would be to listen to a Christmas song in the middle of July. But it’s not simply ‘Out of the Blue’ itself that has been regarded as a time signal for millions of listeners for more than 70 years; what have always traditionally followed it are the classified football results. Remarkably, this weekly roll-call of winners and losers has only ever been recited by three different voices for the entire run of ‘Sports Report’. John Webster held the post from 1948 to 1974; James Alexander Gordon was the reader from 1974 to 2013; and Charlotte Green succeeded him, occupying the hot seat until the decision to drop the results was suddenly announced. The man in the middle of this trio with golden vocal chords is the one most of us grew up with. James Alexander Gordon’s famous delivery, in which his intonation would rise and fall to indicate whether the home team had won, drawn or lost before revealing how many goals they’d scored or conceded, was a hallmark of listening to the classifieds for almost 40 years, and one that left the listener eager to hear every result, not just the one involving their own team.

Even with the advent of ‘Grandstand’ on TV and its super-fast ‘tele-printer’ bringing the results to the viewer in the comfort of their living room, the classified football results on the radio were still a vital source of information for the supporters, especially those on the long journey home from an away game. If one were lucky enough to be making that journey home by car after a cold, wet fixture in some drab provincial town, the sound of the afternoon’s results being read by James Alexander Gordon would be as soothing to the occupants of the vehicle as a roaring fire would be to the fair-weather fan who stayed at home. I suppose it is this warm association that has given the results on the radio such an affectionate place in their hearts of football followers for decades, and why their abrupt removal has been met with the same kind of anger that the axing of the Radio 4 UK Theme provoked in 2006. A couple of years ago, a book I wrote about the 1970 FA Cup Final – ‘No Place for Boys’ – contained a passage on the subject of how significant the reading of the classified results on ‘Sports Report’ has continued to be, and I reproduce it here to spell it out…

For generations of football fans, even those who can now access every result via their Smartphones seconds after the final whistles have been blown, tuning in is still key to the experience of following the sport in Britain. If football is a religion, then the ritual of catching ‘Sports Report’ late on a Saturday afternoon is one of its holiest ceremonies. In a curious way, hearing all those score-lines coming in from across the country is one of the rare moments when that country actually feels like the otherwise-mythical One Nation, with millions of its citizens sharing the same sensations at the same time – all the way from Elgin City FC down to Plymouth Argyle. And whichever end of the country you’re at, all you need is a radio and you’re part of it.

The reason the BBC has given for dropping the classified football results from ‘Sports Report’ is that live commentary on the Premier League fixture at 5.30pm means the programme has been shortened and there’s no room for the results in the mix anymore. Sounds a bit like ‘the pacy news briefing’ excuse Mark Damazer used. This particular excuse was also expanded upon in a rather predictable way, citing the availability of other, faster means of accessing the day’s results than the traditional practice of waiting to hear them at 5.00. This misses the point entirely. Just as far more landlubbers tune into the Shipping Forecast than fishermen – who could access all the shipping news they need in a superior form to ye olde Long Wave via satellite tracking systems – the fanatical Sky Sports subscriber who rarely takes his eyes from the screen as scores are flooding in throughout the afternoon is not the target; many listeners who couldn’t care less about the sport switch on simply to hear the names being recited. In the flesh, Crewe Alexandra or Queen of the South are no more exotic locations on the map than Cromarty or German Bight, but when their names are joined together for the recital, they acquire a uniquely poetic resonance that renders them almost romantic. And there’s not a lot of romance about in 2022.

Expecting anyone at the BBC today to remotely understand their listeners is a tall order; dropping the classified football results is merely another example of not only how out-of-touch the Beeb is with its audience, but how it continues to view it with condescending contempt. When the ground beneath the feet is as insecure and unstable as it is at uncertain and often unnerving times like these, people tend to be naturally drawn to the few remaining signposts they feel they can rely on to reassure them all is not lost. During that first bewildering lockdown, millions retreated into the safe womb of nostalgic telly, music and pastimes, desperately seeking something that could take their minds off the horrors of the present day. We may be through the worst now, but the scars of that unsettling time run deep and variations on the Project Fear formula are keeping many in a state of emergency. The yearning for the kind of security that is connected to less stressful and more innocent times remains potent. The classified football results were a fixed point at a fixed time on a fixed day, and had been since most of our parents were in short pants. Taking them away now is not a great idea.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/740131147